Making our own way

Making our own way

Toldot - Genesis 25:19-28:9

Say what you will about Esau, it is hard to read this week’s parsha without feeling sorry for him. Having traded away his birthright, he now loses his blessing as well.

The Torah portrays the episode as a simple case of wrongful exploitation. Isaac sends Esau to hunt for game and make him dinner. While he is gone, Rebecca coaches Jacob to impersonate his brother and steal his blessing.

Three times, through tears of dismay, Esau implores his father to bless him also: First, just the straightforward request, “Bless me too, father!” Then, in utter disbelief, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” And finally, with urgency we can only imagine, “Have you but one blessing, father? Bless me too!” Only then does Esau too get blessed.

It is not much of a blessing, however. Like Isaac, he will be entitled to sustenance, “the dew of the heavens and the fat of the earth.” But Jacob’s enemies will be cursed, those who bless him will be blessed, and he will be master over all, while Esau, by contrast, must “live by the sword and serve his brother.”

The rabbis try to justify Jacob’s behavior. Among other things, they point to the passage immediately prior where Jacob marries foreign women, and charges them with acts of idolatry. The wild man Esau has lived his whole life by brawn not by brain; how easily he gave up his birthright without regard for the Jewish future it entailed, and now he countenances idolatry in his own household. How wise of Rebecca to make sure that Jacob received the choice blessing of poor, blind Isaac who, somehow, failed to notice it all.

But still, it’s hard not to pity Esau, who may be weak, misguided, or simple, but far from evil. His failures are less of character then they are of DNA. He is a hunter, not a scholar; he lacks patience, he is naive, he cannot connive. He is not a bad son — indeed, he loses the blessing because he is so quick to do his father’s bidding, to run into the field and prepare what might be Isaac’s final deathbed meal. Imagine his pain at being reduced to pleading, in effect, “Father, don’t you love me, too?”

Another deathbed scene will occur at the end of Genesis — not with Isaac, but with Jacob gathering his children around him. They too will receive mixed blessings. Judah is given dominion over others, but Gad will be “raided by raiders,” Simeon and Levi will be divided and scattered, and Reuben is denounced and left with no blessing at all.

The mixture of blessing and curse received by Isaac’s and Jacob’s offspring reflects the human condition. We all emerge from childhood hoping for blessing but sometimes settling for less. Freud was not the first to discover the baggage we carry from childhood. These biblical scenes of parental blessing do that very well. So too does the Torah’s reminder that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children. It is not just what our parents explicitly wish upon us. We suffer subtly also from more insidious parental behavior that becomes part and parcel of who we are.

But the story is not over. Two weeks from now, Esau makes a comeback as an adult. When Jacob seeks reconciliation to the point of giving Esau half the fortune he has amassed in the interim, Esau appears with a retinue of followers and fortune enough to say, “I have enough, my brother; you may keep what is yours.” It is Esau now, not Jacob, who displays maturity of character and serenity of mind — as Jacob himself concedes, when he acknowledges, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”

Apparently, the mixed blessing of our childhood is not determinative. Indeed, the Malbim insists that the most significant blessings of all must be acquired on our own, not inherited from our parents. The rabbis too conclude that the sins of the fathers cannot plague us forever; at the age of bar or bat mitzva — when we envision becoming adults, that is — we are free of them.

Parenthood is difficult: We muster what wisdom we have to bless our children — and sometime fail. Childhood is tenuous: We receive what our parents gave us — blessing without curse, we hope, but more likely, a mixed bag of both. Either way, however, we make our own way in the world, as adults. Whether blessed or cursed by childhood, we are all able to achieve a life of goodness and wisdom, peace and tranquility. We can all aspire to the serenity that displays itself as the comforting face of God.

read more: